I will attempt to keep this short since I should be working on another writing project, but I am a lifetime procrastinator and might be using this post as an excuse. I had been meaning to see The Way Way Back for awhile. It was written by Jim Rash and Nat Fixon whose other writing credits include the Oscar Award winning The Descendants so I thought they could tackle the “coming of age” story well. I was neither wrong nor disappointed. As always, SPOILERS ahead.
The movie has a pretty simple premise; a child of divorce is spending the summer away with his mom and her new boyfriend at his summer place. It would already be kind of weird and shitty, and to add to this unfortunate circumstances, the boyfriend (played by the great Steve Carell) is a total dick. Seriously, he is a childish, bullish jerk. I was so amazed by this subtle performance that I genuinely began to believe that maybe Steve Carell is an asshole in real life.
In order to find some solace from this man and the increasingly juvenile actions of the other “adults” around, Duncan, the put upon main character, begins working at a local water park under the tutelage of Owen, Caitlin, Roddy, and Lewis (Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash; yeah there are just incredible actors all around in this film). From this point, Duncan learns and grows and faces the obstacles provided by his mother and her boyfriend.
While these struggles, particularly the actions of the adults, are perfect for mining potential lessons, I wan’t to focus on two moments involving Duncan, and unsurprisingly Owen as well. The first is broken into two parts: the first is their initial encounter at a Pac Man machine. Owen is playing but has to leave allowing Duncan to finish the game for him instructing Duncan that he cannot “follow a pattern on his quarter.” Basically, he must play the game and not try to figure out how to win it through the systematic patterns inherent in the game. This is similar to a later scene where Duncan is finally having a legitimate heart-to-heart with Owen about his home situation, especially the boyfriend Trent, and Owen gives him some advice. “That’s about him. That has nothing to do with you…You’ve got to go your own way, and you, my friend, are going your own way.”
Both these moments are equivalent in their message: You are not [just] the product of your parents, your friends, or any other persons in your life. Obviously, these people have an influence, sometimes major, on who we are and who we can become, but ultimately we get to choose how far that influence goes. We get to decide who we are regardless of how badly our families screwed us up. Of course, we can also throw away the opportunities they provided, but it is still up to us.
In the movie, there is a rumor of a kid who managed to take the lead in one of the water tunnels/slides and pass the person in front of him. This is basically the water park’s legend and no one know if it really happened or how. At the end of the movie, Duncan, due to Trent’s actions and decisions, is leaving the summer house and town prematurely. He doesn’t really get a chance to say goodbye to his coworkers and friends, but decides to do one last thing before being whisked off. He escapes from the backseat of the shitty car he is forced into and runs to the water park. Once there he enlists Owen’s help to try and pass him in the tunnel. Without a second thought, Owen agrees and they are off with the entire park watching and waiting. His mother, Pam, along with Trent and his daughter, Steph, run after Duncan to learn the truth of what he has been up to the entire summer up to that point. They genuinely had no idea what he was doing when he rode his bike in the morning.
Duncan is successful in his attempt and is seen as a hero and legend before finally departing. He does not tell anyone how he accomplished this feat instead saying simply “you just have to try it.” As far as Duncan knows, this did not change anything. He still leaves and has to say goodbye to his new friends and surrogate family at the park. He believes his mom will still date the douche she is with and outside of the park, he will still be the shy, awkward kid. However, he knows what he accomplished and that changes something in him, which eventually does have other effects in the long run.
This brings forth the next lesson: Sometimes all we have is the small victories and that is more than enough. We might never be the hero. We will probably never change the world or write that bestseller or make that great film in our heads. Sometimes all we will accomplish in a day is that we survived it and that is okay. That is more than a lot of people get. I am not saying to not shoot for the stars. Or to give up on dreams. What I am saying is that it is fine if you don’t manage to accomplish all you want to, today.
Thus endeth today’s lessons.